A 21-year-old Prince George man awaiting trial in the death of a 15-year-old girl has been charged with the murders of three other area women since 2009, but ruled out as a suspect in the Highway of Tears case, police say.
Over a 10-month investigation, police "extensively" looked at Cody Legebokoff in connection with the disappearances of 18 young women since 1969 along a 724-kilometre stretch of northern road between Prince George and Prince Rupert, but could not link him to the mystery, RCMP said on Monday.
"When the investigations were initiated, we were very alive to the possibility. However, through forensics and pure mathematics, there's no nexus between Mr. Legebokoff and the Highway of Tears victims," Inspector Brendan Fitzpatrick said in an interview.
He noted that the most recent highway case was in 2006. "He would have been barely able to drive a car at that time," the inspector said.
But police have found enough evidence for charges of first-degree murder in the cases of Jill Stuchenko and Cynthia Maas, both aged 35, and 23-year-old Natasha Montgomery.
All three women vanished in the Prince George area over about a year. Ms. Montgomery was reported missing in 2010 and has not been found. Ms. Stuchenko's remains were discovered in a Prince George-area gravel pit in 2009, and Ms. Maas was found in a local park in October of 2010.
"They all came from very loving families, and they miss them tremendously," Insp. Fitzpatrick said. "They were all mothers, daughters."
Insp. Fitzpatrick declined to comment on causes of death or alleged motives, noting all would be disclosed in court. Mr. Legebokoff made a court appearance on Monday and his case was put over to Nov. 2.
He has been at the Prince George Regional Correctional Centre since Nov. 27, 2010, awaiting trial in the death of Loren Leslie of Fraser Lake, a village west of Prince George.
James Heller, a criminal lawyer acting for Mr. Legebokoff, said he was told of the new charges over the weekend, but has not yet received substantial disclosure from the Crown, so would be hard pressed to comment on Monday's developments.
Of the case, he said: "This is horrible for everyone. It's horrible for his family. It's very disturbing all round."
Mr. Legebokoff, who moved from Lethbridge, Alta., to Prince George in 2009, was arrested after an RCMP officer saw his truck swerve onto a highway from a logging road near Vanderhoof, west of Prince George. Tire tracks from the vehicle led to the remains of Ms. Leslie, who was blind.
The 10-month investigation, dubbed Project E-Prelude, involved police resources across Canada and the United States, Insp. Fitzpatrick said.
The remains of Ms. Leslie and Ms. Maas were sent to the United States for specialized forensic analysis, but Insp. Fitzpatrick declined to detail what the assessment involved. "It was something that wasn't readily available to us in Canada," he said.
Insp. Fitzpatrick did not say specifically what led to the breakthrough in the case, but noted search warrants were executed at two Prince George residences associated with Mr. Legebokoff and that the vehicle he was driving at the time of Ms. Leslie's murder has been closely examined over several weeks.
He said Mr. Legebokoff was an extensive user of social media and online dating with the username 1CountryBoy. Police, he said, are interested in any information from the public about contacts with Mr. Legebokoff between October of 2009, and November of 2010.
Ms. Leslie's father, Doug, noted in a Facebook message addressed to his daughter that she was "the catalyst" in the case, adding, "Your death may just have saved more lives than you know."
The Maas family, in a statement issued by police, described Ms. Maas as a "poster child for vulnerability in our society," but did not elaborate. "Cindy had a right to live, to overcome her struggles, to become strong, and to be the mother she wanted to be," they said.